Jean Bruller’s novella, published illegally in 1942 under the pseudonym Vercors, was one of the first salvos in the “intellectual Resistance” to the Nazi occupation of France. Anthony Weigh’s adaptation of it is dramatically spare in order to emphasise Vercors’ point. Of the three figures onstage, only one speaks to the others: a young German officer, romantically deluded about the nature of the occupation, who is billeted in a coastal cottage with an older man and his pianist niece. He philosophises and offers anecdotes; they utter not a word in response. The older man speaks in monologues directly to the audience; the niece speaks at all only in the final three or four minutes of the 90-minute play.
Vercors argues that even those occupiers who were not brutal were insensitive and deluded. The officer’s speeches about a united Europe (!) are abstract, whereas the man’s soliloquies to us are all rooted in actual events, in the reality which the officer never approaches, hard as he gropes for the language to do so. (There is much byplay about possessive pronouns: when does “the room” become “my room”, and so on.) When he experiences an epiphany during a furlough in Paris, the officer transfers to the more honest war on the eastern front rather than remain complicit in the “diabolical lie of kindness” that occupied France can continue as normal.
One day Leo Bill may be cast in an unambiguously sympathetic role, but not yet. His officer, clad in suit and waistcoat (only on final departure does he appear in Nazi uniform), strains to be friendly but remains agonisingly detached. As the older man, Finbar Lynch immediately establishes that direct monologic connection with us which made him such a fine protagonist in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer a couple of years ago; when not speaking, he is too skilled to convey dumb hostility to Bill’s figure, but instead in effect becomes a brick wall.
In Trafalgar 2’s broad, shallow thrust configuration I was sitting directly behind Simona Bitmaté, whose character is not just mute but virtually immobile for 95 per cent of the play, and so am in no position to judge her acting. Director Simon Evans, rounding off the Donmar’s Trafalgar season, rather overdoes the piano miming but for the most part diligently serves the less-is-more aesthetic of the piece.